Saturday, July 16, 2011

Project: Cherry Melomel

Beautiful, isn't it?
Today, after long not keeping any information on this blog I started five months ago, I made my first solo mead experiment: a cherry melomel.

I assume you wouldn't be reading here on my little site unless you already know that mead is a wine-strength drink made with honey instead of grapes.  But, it could be likely that you don't know what I mean by melomel.  This is pretty simple, it's mead that is made with the addition of fruit!

I've been planning and scheming what my first creative foray into the world of a mazer would be, and cherries were high among my potential ideas, along with mango and some other more adventurous ideas.  But, I found some fresh local cherries readily available and my impulsive nature made the decision for me.

In planning for my first brand new recipe, I tried to keep in mind every thing I have read about mead and everything I know about the culinary arts in general.

First, an important lesson I learned from my first batch: honey alone does not really have the nutrients yeast need to live and work for the full fermentation.  I had read this going in, but decided not to add any artificial nutrients and just follow the directions of my instructor, Amber of Pixies Pocket.  The batch turned out well, but the fermentation stopped early, leaving me with only a 9.5% alcohol content and a mead that was sweeter than I had expected.  It's still really good, though!

So, this is actually of little concern for my new batch as the fruit will add extra nutrients that should help counteract this problem and keep my yeast going strong until they either run out of sugar or the alcohol content gets too high for them to survive.  I'm actually aiming for the latter, as the yeast I have will survive up to about 12-13% ABV, and I would like to have enough sugar left for a medium dry batch.  Using the math I talked about in my first post, this should be a simple calculation.  I'll aim for about a 1.1 specific gravity.

Another thing I wanted to keep in mind is the flavor elements that I added.  I do consider the aromatics as well, but right now I'm specifically talking about the five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami.

  • To start off, no salt.  People who talk about tastes will tell you everything needs a very specific concentration of salt, but c'mon, this is mead.  It just seems like a good way to screw the whole thing up.
  • Sweet is covered and then some by the honey itself.
  • Cherries add some sugar but also a tartness that generally is considered sour.  Just to makes sure sour is covered, I chose to add just a little bit of lime as well for the acidity and a touch more sweetness.
  • While I was at it, the oils from the lime peel will be good, and the white part can help with some bitterness.  Everything I read about mead recommended not using citrus peel as the bitterness can be unpleasant.  I only planned to use it while brewing the must and not to have any of the bitter peel in the fermenting or aging process.
  • Umami may be an unfamiliar thing for many people, but it's what is generally considered to be savory.  There are some spices that can cover this, but I wanted to stay away from spices for the time being.  Instead I went with green tea leaves which server to add this umami element and also some tannins which mead can easily otherwise lack.
So I had an ingredient list, here is how I put this all together for a 1 gallon batch:
I tried it, it's really good.
  • 1 gallon water
  • 8 cups honey (approximately 4 lbs.)
    • Honey is usually done by weight, but I've found that 1 cup is a little less than half a pound on average.  I used Wildflower Honey from Carl Edwards in Murphy, NC which is available locally in my area.
  • 1 lb cherries (frozen)
    • Immediately after buying some nice fresh cherries, I washed them and put them in a big bowl and froze them.  This creates ice crystals that will break down cell walls and allow the berries to more easily release juice.
  • 2 limes
  • Green tea leaves
    • I had loose tea leaves available because I drink this all the time.  This is not to be the primary flavor, so for my gallon of water, I used the amount of tea recommended for half a gallon of tea.
Science About to Begin
I got out the jug in which the magic would happen, a nice 2 gallon pot, a large wooden spoon, a measuring cup, a ladle, a culinary funnel, a floating thermometer, my hydrometer with it's tube, the rubber stopper and airlock and sterilized everything with a little bit of bleach and water and rinsed it like mad.  I laid it all out on a towel and got out the cutting board and the ingredients and got ready to go.

  • Using my 1 gallon jug to measure the water, I put it in the pot and turned up the heat.
  • Just as the water was starting to form some bubbles and was only a couple minutes from boiling, I added the cherries.  This dropped the temperature significantly and slowed down the boiling, but also shocked the cherries and got them thawing very quickly.
  • While the water was heating back up, I took my limes and washed them off.  Then I cut the tops and bottoms off allowing them to stand up easily.  While standing, it was simple to shave off the peel in neat strips with my knife.  Once all the peel was removed, I squeezed the naked fruit thoroughly into the water and then added the remaining pulp and all the peel of both limes.
  • Next, I simply tossed in the tea leaves to do their wonderful thing.
  • While the water approached boiling, I stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon to keep the cherries on the bottom of the pot from scalding.
  • As the cherries thawed, they would float to the top of the soon-to-be must.  When they floated up, I would mash them against the side of the pot with the wooden spoon, being sure that the seed came out.
  • Once the mixture started it's rolling boil, I removed it from the heat and allowed it to calm down.
  • Then, I added the honey, stirring constantly to make sure it dissolved thoroughly.
  • Once the jars stopped pouring, I took about 1/4 cup of the must and added it to the honey jars and shook it up to dissolve any remaining honey and poured this mixture back into the must.  This is a very tricky way to do this and can result in the jars shattering if the glass can't handle the heat.
  • Once the jars were completely empty, I added my floating thermometer to the must so that I could track the temperature of the must.
  • I partly filled my sink with cold water and carefully set the pot with the must in the sink to help it cool off.
  • I continued to stir and smash cherries while the must cooled.
  • Once the temperature reached about 110ºF, I removed it from the water to slow down the cooling process.
  • By this point, the volume of the must was closer to 2 gallons, so I pulled 1/2 gallon out (into the original honey jars) to save for later.  If the remaining liquid was less than a gallon, they could be added back into the fermenter.
  • When they remaining must was between 100-105ºF, I pulled 1/4 cup out and added the yeast to activate it, then returned the active mixture to the must and stirred it all together.
  • Once it was mixed back together, and cooled to closer to 80ºF, I used a ladle and funnel to begin moving the mixture to the fermenter.  It was okay to get some of the fruit pulp into the ladle as long as it did not clog the funnel and as long as none of the seeds or lime peel made it into the jug. Doing this in small amounts with a funnel allowed oxygen to mix in well with the must which will keep the yeast happy and healthy during fermentation.
  • Once the jug was about half full, I capped it and shook it vigorously to mix in even more oxygen.
  • I switched back to the funnel and continued adding the must until the jug was filled to 1 gallon, pretty much perfectly without having to add any of the excess half gallon I had saved earlier.
  • I then capped the jug again and set the airlock into place primed with some nice whisky.  The alcohol in the airlock will keep the mechanism itself fairly sterile and safe during the fermentation process.
  • Cooling Must
  • From the remaining must, I took the final 1/4 cup to take a reading on the hydrometer.  The reading came back at 1.102; pretty much perfectly what I had aimed for!
This process resulted in a gallon of the most beautiful burgundy mixture I could have imagined.  Now I just have to survive the suspenseful next couple of days while fermentation begins.

I'll report what happens as soon as there's news!


  1. Beautiful! We need to get you a bucket. It's just easier to get the fruit out that way. I've been doing my berry wine with primary fermentation in a white bucket with a towel strapped over top of it to keep bugs out. I stir it once daily, and swish it regularly. It's been in there for a week, which means it's getting strained and put in the carboy today!

    Also, I'll be curious about the green tea. I'd be worried about strong bitterness from leaving it in there - some folks I know just brew a cup of tea as if to drink, strain it, and add just the liquid to the must. I can't wait to taste this one, Michael!

    And I disagree about the honey and nutrients thing. I've read both sides of the argument, and know plenty of just honey meads who were plenty fermented and happy...I think I was making a mistake in the amount of yeast used in a one gallon batch. We'll see, though! I'll try another simple mead and test my theory.

  2. I'm actually pretty sure there's none of the tea left in it. I basically cooked the fruit and tea out into the must, so I moved only what little pulp got into the ladle into the fermenter. The mess that was left after I removed the liquid was very pale, and I put it on my plants on the deck to see if whatever nutrients were left would help them.

    Nutrients could also very per honey. I just know that first batch started much slower and early. I don't believe you led me wrong at all, though! Starting slow makes sense for using less yeast to start, but the culture should still multiply to a good healthy population eventually. Still, I don't think I'd ever get the artificial nutrient additives to use either way.